University of Pittsburgh
September 8, 2010

Wow! It’s Been 50 Years? Pitt Faculty Offer Perspective on Anniversary of First Televised Presidential Debate

Online communication has changed the context of today’s debates, says Pitt communication professor
The impact of nonverbal communication and preparation of the candidates can affect debate results, says Pitt rhetorician
Contact:  412-624-4147

PITTSBURGH—On 26 Sept. 1960, 70 million people tuned in to watch Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy of Massachusetts in the first-ever televised presidential debate. It was the first of four televised debates between Kennedy and Nixon, and these live debates would forever change how presidential candidates conducted their campaigns. Two University of Pittsburgh communication professors are available to provide perspective on changes in strategy and how those changes influence today’s debates. 

Gerald R. Shuster, an expert in presidential rhetoric and political communications in Pitt’s Department of Communication, is available to provide commentary on visual versus aural communication. “Nonverbal communication can significantly impact the outcome of a debate,” said Shuster. “The preparation of candidates by their handlers also can affect the outcome of a debate.” 

Shuster’s primary interest in the political arena is from a communications perspective, evaluating communications theories and concepts in campaigns by the strategies candidates and political parties use. Shuster’s expertise includes the modern presidency, from John F. Kennedy to the current president, in terms of the presidents’ rhetorical styles and strategies: He analyzes their public comments and speeches and the impact of both on Congress and other audiences. Shuster frequently provides the national and international media with commentary on political issues, campaigns, and events. 

Shuster’s detailed analysis of a 2008 Obama campaign speech was published in the Washington Post and his commentary on various topics appeared in such places as CBS News, MSNBC, NewsTALK93 in Jamaica, AFP-AP France, Arizona Republic, Los Angeles Times, and US News and World Report. Contact Gerald Shuster at 412-624-5199 (office), 724-664-3258 (cell), 724-543-2246 (home), or ges3@pitt.edu. 

Barbara Warnick, professor of communication
 and chair of Pitt’s Department of Communication, said the early “debates were quite staged—the candidates had a sense of what they might be asked, and then rehearsed for the debate. Today, candidates are asked unexpected questions and must speak extemporaneously. This makes the debates more interesting and more informative, often revealing what the candidates really think and what they know,” she said, adding that online communication also has changed the debate context. 

Warnick is author of Rhetoric Online: Persuasion and Politics on the World Wide Web (New York: Peter Lang, 2007). Her research focuses on what new media mean for rhetorical analysis and criticism. In her current research, Warnick questions how persuasion as a form of social influence occurs in new media environments. She also explores how the modes of communication in new media environments are shaped and constrained by the media in which they are communicated. Warnick recently was elected a 2010 Fellow of the Rhetoric Society of America. Contact Barbara Warnick at 412-624-1564 (office), 412-781-3577 (home), or bwarnick@pitt.edu. 

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